Climate Change Now Among Top US Strategic Priorities

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Ask almost anyone about the main national priorities of the US, and you’ll probably hear “democracy” and “continuing economic growth.” You might also hear “security concerns,” especially since the rise of terrorism after 9/11. But from now on you’ll hear a lot more about a fourth target. “Climate change.”

US Ambassador Robert Black observes climate impacts in Papua (US Department of State)
US Ambassador Robert Black observes climate impacts in Papua (US Department of State)

Last week, the US Department of State released its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a far-reaching document cosponsored by the the U.S. Agency for International Development that guides strategic planning in the US diplomatic corps. It’s the State Department’s equivalent to the Quadrennial Defense Reviews conducted by the Department of Defense and another review from the Department of Energy.

QDDR coverThe State Department review spells out US interests in detail. It identifies major current global threats and opportunities and US strategic priorities. It also clarifies policies to ensure that American civilian institutions remain strong and can respond to rapid changes in other parts of the world.

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Secretary of State John Kerry puts these concerns aptly in the introduction to the QDDR:

“We live and work in countries subject to terrorism, violence, unstable political and social forces, increasing climate change impacts, severe economic deprivation, inefficient governance, and the risk of disease and illness. These are constant challenges to achieving our goals.

We are not naïve about the dangers. Balancing our values and interests with the risks inherent in 21st-century diplomacy is challenging in the best of circumstances. There are steps we can take to mitigate risk, but we can never eliminate it.”

The QDDR highlights five ways the US government can respond to the climate change priority by integrating and elevating responses it across diplomatic and development goals:

  • Increase Department of State and USAID capacities in climate diplomacy and development.
  • Strengthen department staff understanding of and engagement in climate issues.
  • Integrate climate change into all diplomatic and development efforts.
  • Designate countries where in-depth climate engagement is critical.
  • Expand climate and clean energy diplomacy beyond capitals to the countryside.

I heard Kerry put forward some of the same points forcefully, but with characteristic grace, in a meeting at the 20th UNFCCC conference in Lima, Peru, last December. He hushed an assembled multinational crowd with these words:

Secretary of State Kerry speaks at the UNFCCC COP20 conference in Lima last December (Photo: Sandy Dechert)
Secretary of State Kerry about to speak at the UNFCCC COP20 conference in Lima last December (Photo: Sandy Dechert)

“Measured against the array of global threats that we face today—terrorism, extremism, epidemics, poverty, nuclear proliferation—climate change ranks up there, equal with all of them. And I challenge anyone who has listened to national security experts tell us that the dangers are real, to tell us otherwise, and to show us otherwise.”

The 2015 National Security Strategy and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap back up Kerry’s view of climate change as an urgent and growing threat to national security. Hillary Clinton (Kerry’s predecessor at State and the originator of the quadrennial review) made sure to incorporate climate strategy in her departmental planning. And as many recall, president Bill Clinton early on stressed the importance of the climate issue and former Vice-President Al Gore made it his mission well before his narrow presidential defeat. The phenomenon has concerned politicians and scientists since the 1980s, and far-seeing individuals noted it even earlier.

Kerry has now moved the Obama administration’s climate change emphasis to the fore in diplomatic relations. The secretary has now instructed the State Department’s corps to focus recruiting on candidates with climate as a “core competency.”

This makes good sense. It should help enable the US to take a issue central to human interests in hand and contribute positively, comprehensively, and soon to mitigation and adaptation. Like similar Cabinet-level measures in the Departments of Defense and Energy, it also supports the individual efforts of smaller communities. The cap-and-trade program of nine Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the cities like New York, already taking action to green and buttress themselves against increased threats from destabilizing climate, exemplify this subnational energy. Americans need localities to take matters into their own hands because getting anything done on a Congressional level suffers from the same political strains as trying to unite 196 differently developed nations.

The local and regional movement taking place in the US also characterizes Canada, sorely divided by a history of environmental awareness and instant wealth and eventual pollution from Alberta’s tar sands. British Columbia adopted a carbon taxation scheme even before the 2009 Copenhagen talks; Quebec and Ontario have now pledged mutual decarbonization; and their commitment now overlaps multinationally with that of California.

Secretary Kerry acknowledged the value of regional, local, and special interest-group efforts when he said recently that as well as incorporating climate consciousness at the federal level, the US can benefit from measures taken by governors, mayors, CEOs, faith leaders, and civil society to halt what Slate commenter Eric Holthaus calls “the business-as-usual slow boil toward climate apocalypse.”

This perspective voices an American shift in attitude that matches the prevailing direction of international efforts. Since the failure of “top-down” efforts to result in a global approach to the problem after Copenhagen, the world’s climate specialists have focused on the self-declared (“bottom-up”) efforts of individual nations on carbon reduction. They have set a deadline of this year to enable the December 2015 talks in Paris to achieve a useful consensus. They have also actively promoted participation from business, religious, and civic leaders, who have responded with coalitions like We Mean Business, the involvement of Pope Francis, and the C40 coalition of 75 world cities.

The UN’s top climate change official, Christiana Figueres, has acknowledged that this year’s pledges will likely not be high enough to result in the changes the world needs by 2050. She has also strongly said that the process can be reiterated and refined once the group has made initial commitments. The new direction and trend toward goodwill and multi-interest cooperation, reinforced at last year’s talks in Lima and restated on a national US level in the QDDR, are certainly welcome and more so daily.

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